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DOJ watchdog finds problems, not politics in Trump campaign probe

Report does not back president’s most sweeping criticisms of FBI investigation

Michael Horowitz, inspector general of the Justice Department, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee in July 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Michael Horowitz, inspector general of the Justice Department, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee in July 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The FBI had enough evidence to launch a criminal probe into members of President Donald Trump’s campaign during the 2016 election, and political bias did not motivate that decision, a Justice Department watchdog concluded.

But DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz also identified “significant concerns” with how the FBI handled aspects of the investigation, particularly how it handled applications to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page to a secret court that oversees such requests.

The 476-page report appears to fall short of some of the sweeping criticisms from Trump and his congressional allies of the FBI probe into Russian interference in the election. But it does gives some fodder for those who raised concerns that the FBI did not follow the rules.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham told reporters Monday that the investigation “became a criminal enterprise,” and pointed to parts of the report that he said meant the FBI had lied to federal judges to keep the investigation going.

When later asked what crime the FBI agents had committed, the South Carolina Republican said “defrauding the court” and “not reporting exculpatory information to the court” or “making a false statement to the court.”

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Horowitz is scheduled to testify at a Senate Judiciary hearing Wednesday about his findings, conclusions and recommendations.

Among them, Horowitz found the FBI opened the “Crossfire Hurricane” investigation after multiple days of discussions and meetings among senior bureau officials, and “we did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that this decision was the result of political bias or improper motivation.”

But Horowitz discovered that the FBI was not required to consult Justice Department officials before making that discretionary decision, when such high-level notice is required in other circumstances.

“We concluded that similar advance notice should be required in circumstances such as those that were present here,” the report states. And those circumstances “involved the activities of individuals associated with a national major party campaign for president.”

The IG investigation found no evidence that the FBI tried to place any confidential sources within the Trump campaign, recruit members of the campaign as confidential sources or task any confidential sources to report on the campaign.

But it found no FBI policy preventing the bureau from doing so without consulting with the Justice Department, a policy that should be adopted to ensure appropriate oversight, the inspector general concluded.

And Horowitz found 17 “significant inaccuracies and omissions” in Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court applications to allow for continued surveillance of Page. That included the omission of information that raised questions about the reliability of a dossier prepared by Christopher Steele, which had formed the basis of the original Page warrant from the secret court that oversees such requests.

“We do not speculate whether the correction of any particular misstatement or omission, or some combination thereof, would have resulted in a different outcome,” the report states.

“Nevertheless, the Department’s decision-makers and the court should have been given complete and accurate information so that they could meaningfully evaluate probable cause before authorizing the surveillance of a U.S. person associated with a presidential campaign,” the report states.

An FBI policy to protect the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act process from abuse and irregularities requires each application to contain a “full and accurate” presentation of the facts that are “scrupulously accurate.”

“We are deeply concerned that so many basic and fundamental errors were made by three separate, hand-picked investigative teams; on one of the most sensitive FBI investigations; after the matter had been briefed to the highest levels within the FBI; even though the information sought through use of FISA authority related so closely to an ongoing presidential campaign; and even though those involved with the investigation knew that their actions were likely to be subjected to close scrutiny,” the report states.

Because of that, the IG announced further investigation into the FBI’s surveillance applications that target Americans in counterintelligence and counterterrorism probes, as the FBI “fell short of what is rightfully expected from a premier law enforcement agency entrusted with such an intrusive surveillance tool.”

Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, said the FISA system requires fundamental reforms. “Congress can start by providing defendants subjected to FISA surveillance the opportunity to review the government’s secret submissions,” she said.

Graham told CQ Roll Call that he would see what Horowitz suggests for legislative responses, and perhaps get Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Mike Lee of Utah on a working group “and see if we can find a way to repair the damage.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said the report “conclusively debunks the baseless conspiracy” from Trump and congressional allies that “the FBI opened an investigation into the president’s campaign with political motives.”

Graham disagreed, saying FBI officials kept the investigation going when they had information it was no longer legitimate.

“I’m not going to accept that politics isn’t a part of it, given what we know about the people in charge,” he said.

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In May 2017, Robert S. Mueller III took over the special counsel investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and related matters.

Mueller concluded that the Russian government interfered with the elections through computer attacks and a social media campaign that favored candidate Trump and disparaged the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Horowitz is not the only investigator to look at the origins of the Russia probe. Attorney General William Barr assigned federal prosecutor John Durham to do so.

That investigation is ongoing and expected to be broader in scope.

Barr, in a news release, said the inspector general review showed that the FBI launched the investigation “on the thinnest of suspicions that, in my view, were insufficient to justify the steps taken.”

He also said that the evidence produced by the investigation “was consistently exculpatory” and that “the malfeasance and misfeasance detailed in the Inspector General’s report reflects a clear abuse of the FISA process.”

Trump, last week during NATO meetings, plugged Durham’s report as the one to watch.

“That’s the one that people are really waiting for,” the president said. “He’s highly respected, and he’s worked very hard. He’s worked long hours, I can tell you, and gone all over the world.”

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